Heroic civic friendship

It comes as a surprise to see an entire act of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris (1779) devoted to the magnanimous dispute between Orestes and Pylades about who is more committed to their friendship.

While the plot is hardly advanced, we watch a glorious sequence where the closest of friends try to save each other’s life by offering themselves for the ritual sacrifice ordered by the tyrannical King Thoas of Tauris and the cruel gods.  It takes Act III of this tragédie lyrique to determine that Pylades will be spared.  The scene, culminating in the duet Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes (and closing with Pylades’ aria “Amitié, divinité des grandes âmes”) dramatizes the ethical and affective bonds of civic friendship as a shared pursuit of freedom and virtue through resistance to both tyranny and divine wrath.

These bonds may be mapped on the basis of the fundamental symmetry of Roman amicitia/friendship as described by Edith Hall in her discussion of the very same scene in an ancient work, a lost tragedy by Marcus Pacuvius praised by Cicero.  Both parties needed to be of the same age group, life experiences, status, and loyalty. “Friends competed to show that they were superior in the performance of amicitia, both to their friends and also to the wider public in order to win political advantage” (Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris, 2013, 100-1).

“Who Killed Gluck?” asks Simon Goldhill in an admiring paper.  Why the decline of his reputation in much of the 20thcentury?  Goldhill’s first culprit is the Hoffmannsthal/Strauss Elektra, circa1910, which made Gluck “taken up as the icon of the most traditional view of Hellenism, the repository of the purity, chastity, and the safety of the white, Hellenic ideal” (in Brown & Ograjenšek, Ancient Drama in Music for the Modern Stage, 2010, 235).  His more historically informed response is that “Gluck is killed and revived at different significant junctures of opera’s love affair with the ancient world” (238).  To those two answers I would add that Gluck was also killed by the exhaustion of a particular mode of civic friendship, the heroic one that prevailed from the Romans of Cicero’s time to those of the pre-revolutionary Enlightenment.  Soon after the premiere of Gluck’s second Iphigenia, the heroic citizen friend was replaced by a different mode of friendship, that of the rebel friend.

Yet, friendships with a strong public/civic dimension in our world make my Orestes, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, and me believe that practices of fraternity continue to endure long after the Enlightenment faded away.

17 January 2017

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